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Councilman criticized over ‘Black child’ label for Luzerne County

THE PHILADELPHIA TRIBUNE —  Luzerne County Councilman Robert Schnee says he did not mean to offend anyone last week when he described Luzerne County as “like the Black child here” when it comes to state funding. Local civil rights leader Guerline L. Laurore says she finds Schnee’s comments offensive.

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Luzerne County Councilman Robert Schnee (Photo By: Dave Scherbenco/Citizens Voice)

By The Citizen Voice

WILKES-BARRE — Luzerne County Councilman Robert Schnee says he did not mean to offend anyone last week when he described Luzerne County as “like the Black child here” when it comes to state funding.

Local civil rights leader Guerline L. Laurore says she finds Schnee’s comments offensive.

Schnee’s colleagues say they misheard his remarks at an April 9 council work session as the board discussed the poor state of roads in the county.

Councilman Stephen A. Urban criticized state lawmakers who represent Luzerne County for not doing enough to obtain funding to repair the county’s roads.

Schnee said those lawmakers do the best they can at state level, where funding is disproportionately distributed to the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions.

“We’re like the Black child here, whatever you want to call it. … We have an uphill battle,” Schnee said.

No one commented on Schnee’s use of the phrase “like the Black child” during the work session.

Council members reached Monday said they thought Schnee had said “black sheep” instead. The phrase “Black child” can be heard clearly on an audio recording of the work session posted to the county website.

Schnee said in a phone interview Monday that he did not misspeak.

He said he wanted to draw a comparison between African Americans, who face discrimination in their daily lives, and Luzerne County, which faces discrimination when it comes to state funding.

“Sadly enough, the Black person in the minority is still discriminated against,” Schnee said. “It’s sad to say in this day and age.”

He compared that to Luzerne County’s attempts to compete for state funding with Pennsylvania’s two large metropolitan areas.

“The money goes … where the votes are coming from,” Schnee said. “Pittsburgh and Philly get all the money.”

Schnee, in a later interview, said he feels “disrespect” might be a better word to describe the county’s situation.

He stressed that he meant no disrespect to the African-American community.

“I think it’s being supportive of them,” he said. “That’s what I meant.”

Laurore, secretary of Gov. Tom Wolf’s advisory commission on African American affairs and former president of the Wilkes-Barre chapter of the NAACP, said Schnee’s remark was “entirely inappropriate.”

“Basically, he’s saying that nobody wants to be the Black child, because this is how you are treated when you are Black,” said Laurore, an attorney and Shavertown resident.

Also, Schnee’s use of language that some would consider racially charged distracted from the discussion of an important infrastructure issue, Laurore said.

“It seems to me the councilman is using language meant to inflame and take away from the real issue at hand,” she said. “You can point out that the African-American community feels mistreated in many areas, but to use them to make your point, I don’t think it’s fair. It’s confusing the issue by bringing up racial epithets.”

This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune

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Schumer: “Any Unnecessary Delays to Honor Harriet Tubman, Especially for Political Reasons, Are Improper and Unacceptable”

NNPA NEWSWIRE — More than three years ago, under President Obama, the Treasury Department announced the redesign of the $20 note featuring Harriet Tubman’s portrait would be released in 2020, but the Trump administration recently announced that the redesign would be delayed until 2028.

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Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer

Washington, DC – Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer sent a new letter to the U.S. Department of Treasury Inspector General formally requesting an investigation into the Trump Administration’s decision to delay release of the redesign of the twenty-dollar bill.

More than three years ago, under President Obama, the Treasury Department announced the redesign of the $20 note featuring Harriet Tubman’s portrait would be released in 2020, but the Trump administration recently announced that the redesign would be delayed until 2028.

Leader Schumer is demanding answers to the official explanation by the Trump Administration about why the bill’s release has been delayed. In the letter, Leader Schumer specifically requests that the Treasury Inspector General examine whether political considerations played a role in the decision to delay the release and why the Treasury Secretary suggested that it would take a decade or more to produce a new $20 bill.

The request seeks a review of the involvement of the interagency process related to the redesign—including the Secret Service, Federal Reserve, and the White House – to ensure that political considerations did not taint the process to recognize Harriet Tubman’s heroic legacy.

Leader Schumer’s letter also comes after he successfully secured the establishment the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park in Tubman’s hometown, Auburn, NY– which was formally established in January 2017. Schumer fought for years to make Tubman Park a reality. He authored, introduced, and passed legislation authorizing the park and lobbied federal officials to secure the establishment of the park.

Full text of Leader Schumer’s letter is below and a PDF is here

The Honorable Eric M. Thorson
Inspector General
U.S. Department of Treasury
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20220

Dear Inspector General Thorson:

I write to request that your office investigate the circumstances surrounding the Department of Treasury’s decision to delay redesign of the $20 note featuring the portrait of Harriet Tubman, including any involvement by the White House in this decision. More than three years ago, Secretary Jacob Lew announced that he had ordered the acceleration of redesigns of the $20, $10 and $5 notes, and that the “final concept design” of the $20 note, including Harriet Tubman’s portrait, would be released in 2020.

Shortly after the Trump Administration took office, however, all mentions of the Tubman $20 bill were deleted without explanation from the Treasury Department’s website. Then we learned, according to recent testimony by Secretary Steven Mnuchin that a decision had been made to delay the release of the new $20 note until the year 2028. The Treasury Department subsequently refused to confirm that Harriet Tubman’s image would ever appear on the new note – notwithstanding recent reports that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing has already completed extensive planning work on the redesign effort.

We do not know the real reason for these decisions, but we do know that during his campaign, President Trump referred to efforts to replace President Jackson’s likeness on the front of the $20 note as “pure political correctness.” Secretary Mnuchin attempted to explain the delay as necessary to accommodate anti-counterfeiting measures, but it is simply not credible that with all the resources and expertise of the U.S. Treasury and Secret Service, a decade or more could be required to produce a new $20 bill. If the Empire State Building could be completed in 13 months almost 100 years ago, the 21st century Treasury Department ought to be able to get this job done in a reasonable period of time.

Harriet Tubman was an extraordinary American and New Yorker whose story deserves to be shared with current and future generations. She deserves to be honored for her bravery, compassion, and service to the United States. There is no reason to reverse the original decision to recognize her heroic legacy on the $20 note. Any unnecessary delays, especially for political reasons, in redesigning the $20 note in her honor are improper and unacceptable.

For these reasons, I ask that you conduct an investigation into decisions made at the Treasury since January of 2018 regarding the delay of the redesign of the $20 note. I also ask that you review the involvement of other participants in the interagency process related to the redesign – including the Secret Service, Federal Reserve, and the White House – to ensure that political considerations have not been allowed to infect the process for designing American currency.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Sincerely,

Charles E. Schumer

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Empire Star Taraji Henson Speaks on Suicide and Mental Health on Capitol Hill

NNPA NEWSWIRE — “It breaks my heart to know that 5-year-old children are contemplating life and death, I just…I’m sorry. That one is tough for me. So, I’m here to appeal to you, because this is a national crisis. When I hear of kids going into bathrooms, cutting themselves, you’re supposed to feel safe in school,” Henson told the members of Congress and those in the audience in a hearing room on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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Award-winning actress and Empire star Taraji P. Henson testified before members of Congress on mental health issues in the African American community. (Photo: YouTube)
Award-winning actress and Empire star Taraji P. Henson testified before members of Congress on mental health issues in the African American community. (Photo: YouTube)

By Lauren Victoria Burke, NNPA Newswire Contributor

“I am here using my celebrity, using my voice, to put a face to this, because I also suffer from depression and anxiety. If you’re a human living in today’s world, I don’t know how you’re not suffering in any way.”

Award-winning actress and ‘Empire’ star Taraji P. Henson testified before members of Congress on mental health issues in the African American community.

The Congressional Black Caucus launched a task force on mental health issues in April of this year. They have held hearings on mental health and the increasing number of suicides among black youth. The CBC Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health is chaired by Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).

The members of the task force are Reps. Alma Adams (D-NC), Emanuel Cleaver II (D-MO), Danny Davis (D-IL), Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Jahana Hayes (D-CT), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Barbara Lee (D-CA), John Lewis (D-GA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Frederica Wilson (D-FL).

“I’m here to appeal to you because this is a national crisis,” Henson said. Henson founded The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation in 2018 to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness in the African American community with a specific emphasis on the suicide rate among Black youth.

“I really don’t know how to fix this problem, I just know that the suicide rate is rising,” she said. “I just know that ages of the children that are committing suicide are getting younger and younger,” the actress added.

“It breaks my heart to know that 5-year-old children are contemplating life and death, I just…I’m sorry. That one is tough for me. So, I’m here to appeal to you, because this is a national crisis. When I hear of kids going into bathrooms, cutting themselves, you’re supposed to feel safe in school,” Henson told the members of Congress and those in the audience in a hearing room on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Every year, 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness, but a National Alliance on Mental Illness study discovered that black adults utilize mental health services at half the rate of white adults.

Lauren Victoria Burke is an independent journalist and writer for NNPA as well as a political analyst and strategist as Principal of Win Digital Media LLC. She may be contacted at LBurke007@gmail.com and on twitter at @LVBurke

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Government

Will White House Advisory Council Act to End America’s Affordable Housing Crisis?

PASADENA JOURNAL — 

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Photo by: Pixabay | Pexels.com

By Charlene Crowell

Nearly 90 years ago, Kelly Miller (1863-1939), a Black sociologist and mathematician, said, “The Negro is up against the white man’s standard, without the white man’s opportunity.” As the first Black man to enroll as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in 1908, Miller also authored a book entitled Race Adjustment, published in 1908.

Ironically, despite the passage of time, Miller’s words express the same sentiment held today by many Black Americans. As a people and across succeeding generations, we have held fast to our hopes for a better life. Yet it is painfully true that many opportunities enjoyed by other Americans have been elusive for people of color.

Noted author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed a similar view during his June 19 Capitol Hill testimony on reparations.

“Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores,” noted Coates. “When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.”

While economists, public policy think tanks and other entities may sing a chorus of how well the American economy is performing and expanding, people of color – especially Blacks and Browns – have yet to see or feel economic vibrancy in our own lives – particularly when it comes to housing and homeownership.

On June 25, Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) released its annual report, The State of the Nation’s Housing. One of the housing industry’s most broadly anticipated and cited reports, it once again chronicles recent trends and issues.

“The limited supply of smaller, more affordable homes in the face of rising demand suggests that the rising land costs and the difficult development environment make it unprofitable to build for the middle market,” said Chris Herbert, JCHS’s managing director.

Among this year’s key findings:

Since 2018, the monthly housing payment on a median-priced home has been $1,775;
In 2019, the cost of a median-priced home rose by 4% to $261,600 when a comparable home in 2011 was priced far lower at $177,400.

This rise in home prices is also the seventh straight year that median household incomes have failed to keep pace in 85 of the nation’s largest 100 markets.

Nearly $52,000 would be required to make a 20% down payment on a median priced home. Even if buyers opted for an FHA 3.5% down payment mortgage, more than $9,000 would be needed to pay it, closing costs, and related fees;

In rental housing, four million units of housing priced at $800 or less were lost between 2011 and 2019. Also, since 2010, renters now include consumers earning $75,000 or more.

Families who already own their own homes, these findings signal that their investments are appreciating, growing in equity and wealth.

But for those trying to make that important transition from renting to owning, it’s a very different outlook. As rental prices continue to soar and moderately priced apartments disappear from the marketplace, both prospective homeowners and current renters face a shrinking supply of affordable housing.

When homeownership is possible, housing costs can be better contained with fi xed-interest rate mortgages, tax credits, and eventual equity. Even so, the Harvard report finds that only 36% of all consumers could afford to buy their own home in 2018. With higher priced homes in 2019, the affordability challenge worsens.

“It is equally noteworthy that once again this key report shares how consumers of color continue to face challenges in becoming homeowners, noted Nikitra Bailey, an EVP with the Center for Responsible Lending. “According to the report, only 43% of Blacks and 47% of Latinx own their own home, while white homeownership remains at 73%.

“This 30% disparity deserves further examination and proportional remedies,” continued Bailey. “Greater access to safe and affordable credit, better fair housing enforcement, preservation of anti-discrimination laws – including disparate impact – can play a role in eliminating homeownership gaps. Further, as the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are publicly debated, a renewed commitment to serve all creditworthy borrowers must be embraced.”

Calvin Schermerhorn, a professor of history in Arizona State University’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and author of The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860, holds similar views to those expressed by Bailey. In a recent Washington Post op ed column, Schermerhorn addressed the historic disparities that Black America continues to suffer.

“One-fifth of African American families have a net worth of $0 or below; 75 % have less than $10,000 for retirement,” wrote Schermerhorn. “The enduring barriers to black economic equality are structural rather than individual…. “Escalators into the middle class have slowed and stalled, and the rung of the economic ladder one starts on is most likely where one will end up.”

On the same day as the Harvard report’s release, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that establishes a new advisory body that will be led by HUD Secretary Ben Carson. A total of eight federal agencies will work with state and local government officials to remove “burdensome governmental regulations” affecting affordable housing.
“Increasing the supply of housing by removing overly burdensome rules and regulations will reduce housing costs, boost economic growth, and provide more Americans with opportunities for economic mobility,” stated Secretary Carson.

If Secretary Carson means that local zoning rules favor single family homes over multi-family developments is a fundamental public policy fl aw, he may be on to something. However this focus misses the crux of the affordable housing crisis: Wages are not rising in line with increasing housing costs. And now, after the housing industry continues to cater to more affluent consumers, while many older adults choose to age in place, the market has very little to offer those who want their own American Dream, including some who are anxiously awaiting the chance to form their own households.

Builders have historically, not just of late, complained about the time it takes to secure permits or the series of inspections that must be approved during construction and before properties can be listed for sale. What is missing from this new initiative is a solution to the financial challenges that average people face.

It was scant regulation and regulatory voids that enabled risky mortgage products with questionable terms that took our national economy to the brink of financial collapse with worldwide effects. Taxpayer dollars to rescue financiers while many unnecessary foreclosures stripped away home equity and wealth from working families.

Time will tell whether new advisors and proposals remember the lessons from the Great Recession.

This article originally appeared in the Pasadena Journal

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VIDEO: Hamilton County Juvenile Judge Tracie Hunter Dragged Off to Jail — Literally

NNPA NEWSWIRE — Hunter was initially charged with committing nine felonies. After charges were dropped on all but one, she was convicted and entered into a lengthy appeals process. The state supreme court of Ohio refused to hear her appeal, sending the case back to the lower court and resulting in her ultimate sentencing.

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Former Hamilton County, Ohio Juvenile Judge Tracie Hunter is dragged from the courtroom following her sentencing for unlawful interest in a public contact, after she illegally helped her brother keep his county job by mishandling a confidential document. (Photo: YouTube)

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Correspondent
@StacyBrownMedia

Former Hamilton County, Ohio Juvenile Judge Tracie Hunter appeared overcome with emotion as she was literally dragged from a Cincinnati courtroom by a sheriff’s deputy on Monday, July 22, after she was sentenced to six months in jail for charges stemming from a controversial conviction in 2014.

A jury convicted Hunter of unlawful interest in a public contract after she was accused of helping her brother keep his county job by mishandling a confidential document.

Hunter was initially charged with committing nine felonies. After charges were dropped on all but one, she was convicted and entered into a lengthy appeals process. The state supreme court of Ohio refused to hear her appeal, sending the case back to the lower court and resulting in her ultimate sentencing.

With a courtroom packed with supporters — and many more who stood outside of the proceedings — Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Patrick Dinkelacker dispensed Hunter’s punishment.

Prior to sentencing, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters wrote a letter asking the court to consider having Hunter undergo psychiatric evaluation based on questions he has about what he calls Hunter’s “mental condition,” according to reporting from WLWT5.

Hunter’s attorney David Singleton disagreed with the request, adding that he “couldn’t believe” Deters would ask the court to have Hunter undergo evaluation and that they plan to file a motion to dismiss the case.

With all of the support Hunter has received based on both real and perceived biases during the initial trial and appeals process, Mayor John Cranley wrote a letter to Dinkelacker asking him not to place Hunter in prison, saying that she has suffered as a result of her conviction and doesn’t appear to pose any risks to others.

Postcards were sent to Dinkelacker’s house asking for leniency in his sentencing. He read some of the postcards during the hearing.

“I violated no laws, I did not secure a public contract, I did not secure employment for my brother who worked for the court for about seven years before I was elected judge,” Hunter said.

At least one of Hunter’s supporters was arrested at the courthouse after trying to intervene when deputies attempted to take Hunter into custody.

Others shouted, “No Justice, No Peace,” and accused the court of racism.

In June, former Cincinnati State Sen. Eric Kearney had expressed to NNPA Newswire that Hunter’s incarceration was “going to be a problem” and the city would “explode. I’m telling you, black people [in Cincinnati] are not going to take [Hunter going to jail] lightly,” Kearney said. “The city is on edge.”

Kearney, Hunter and her vast number of supporters have said the process used to convict her wreaked of politics, corruption, nepotism and racism.

The jury that rendered the guilty verdict in her trial was comprised of political foes and others associated with the prosecutors and a Republican establishment that didn’t take kindly to Hunter breaking the GOP and white-male dominated stronghold to win a seat on the bench in 2010, her supporters have pointed out.

For example, one of the jurors worked for WCPO Television, a local station that has filed numerous lawsuits against Hunter.

Court documents revealed that the jury foreman contributed $500 to state Sen. Bill Seitz, the father of county jury coordinator Brad Seitz, who was responsible for compiling the panel of jurors that arrived at the guilty verdict, which required a unanimous decision from the jury.

Hunter said that the only three black jurors, none of whom had known ties to prosecutors and all of whom held out for acquittal, ultimately yielded to pressure from other jurors. The judge refused to allow defense lawyers to poll the jury after announcing the verdict.

In every American criminal trial, particularly those that end in guilty verdicts, it’s the right of attorneys to request the judge to poll all 12 jurors to ensure each is in agreement with the verdict.

“The judge refused a motion for a retrial after he refused to poll the jury, in clear violation of the law and at the request of my attorney,” Hunter told NNPA Newswire in June.

“If the judge polled the jury, it happened in a blink, but I don’t remember that happening,” Kearney said.

At the close of the trial, three jurors came forward and said that their true verdict was not guilty and “if Judge Norbert Nadel had polled the jury, they would have said so,” Hunter said.

Hunter also wanted her supporters to know that she is not suicidal.

“I want everyone to know that I don’t drink … I don’t do drugs … I have no intention of harming myself,” she said.

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Driving While Black: Police Continue to Profile, Stop and Search African American Drivers

NNPA NEWSWIRE — “What’s particularly damning about this data is that police were more likely to search Black people than white people yet found contraband in only 41 percent of searches of Black people compared to 72 percent of the searches of white people,” said American Civil Liberties Union Attorney Carl Takei. “In other words, the police have a pattern of stopping and searching Black people in circumstances where they would simply let white people go.

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The Louisville Courier Journal also found that black motorists in Kentucky were searched 12 percent of the time they were stopped, while white motorists were searched just 3.9 percent of the time. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)
The Louisville Courier Journal also found that black motorists in Kentucky were searched 12 percent of the time they were stopped, while white motorists were searched just 3.9 percent of the time. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Correspondent
@StacyBrownMedia

Two new recently published reports show that racial profiling – particularly “Driving While Black” – remains a crisis in America.

A recent report issued by Missouri’s attorney general Eric Schmitt revealed that black drivers across that state are 91 percent more likely than white motorists to get pulled over by police. What’s more, the profiling usually takes place in the motorists’ own community, according to the attorney general’s report.

The Missouri report arrives on the heels of one out of Kentucky where a study found that black motorists are searched at a rate of three-times more than whites in Louisville.

African Americans account for approximately 20 percent of Louisville’s driving age population, but they still accounted for 33 percent of police stops and 57 percent of the nearly 9,000 searches conducted on motorists, according to the Louisville Courier Journal, which conducted the study.

Their findings were highlighted in a tweet by The Thurgood Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.

The Louisville Courier Journal said it reviewed “130,999 traffic stops in Louisville from 2016 to 2018 and found that an overwhelming number of African American drivers were profiled and pulled over by police.”

The newspaper also found that black motorists were searched 12 percent of the time they were stopped, while white motorists were searched just 3.9 percent of the time.

“Aside from the alarming and devastating findings, we have always known that racial profiling is all too prevalent throughout law enforcement and our society as a whole,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson told NNPA Newswire.

“What we need is to implement proper training for law enforcement officers on how to more efficiently carry out essential policing without threatening the lives of people of color,” Johnson said.

Racial profiling is an insidious practice and serious problem in America that can lead to deadly consequences, Johnson added.

“Our faith in our criminal justice system will continuously be challenged if we are constantly targeted by discriminatory practices just by doing simple tasks – walking down the street, driving down an interstate, or going through an airport without being stopped merely because of the color of our skin. Living as a person of color should never be crime,” he said.

American Civil Liberties Union Attorney Carl Takei told NNPA Newswire that racial disparities in the new data are similar to what courts have relied on around the country to find unconstitutional racial profiling in traffic stops.

“Disparities of this kind suggest that officers are using race not only in deciding who to pull over, but who to single out for searches,” Takei said.

“What’s particularly damning about this data is that police were more likely to search Black people than white people yet found contraband in only 41 percent of searches of Black people compared to 72 percent of the searches of white people,” he said.

Takei continued:

“In other words, the police have a pattern of stopping and searching Black people in circumstances where they would simply let white people go.

“This unjustly interferes with Black people trying to live their everyday lives – subjecting them to humiliating, intrusive stops and searches in circumstances where white people would not be stopped or searched.

“Additionally, such racialized policing practices harm law enforcement by undermining the legitimacy of the police and damaging police relationships with the communities they are supposed to be serving.”

The Louisville Courier Journal reported that Police Chief Steve Conrad spoke before the Metro Council Public Safety Committee and acknowledged that the department has disproportionately stopped black drivers.

The newspaper reported that Conrad reasoned that African Americans are disproportionately represented in all aspects of the criminal justice system, including in arrests and incarceration.

“This is not all surprising based on my over 35 years of practice defending drug cases after traffic stops,” Randall Levine, a Kalamazoo, Michigan attorney told NNPA Newswire.

“I would say that DWB – Driving While Black – is still as prevalent today as it was in 1980,” Levine said, before opining what could occur to affect change. “Diversity, sensitivity training and some type of real enforcement for violations might help,” he said.

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Government

State Seeks to Boost Mental Health Counseling

OAKLAND POST — It’s 1 p.m. on a balmy Oak­land afternoon as residents of Great Expectations Residen­tial Care, a home for people with mental illness, gather in an activity room for a game of bingo. Lee Frierson, an unpaid vol­unteer, introduces himself as he and his team leader, Charlie Jones, unpack chips, soda, bat­teries and shampoo that they will hand out as prizes.

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Reach Out Program Manager Charlie Jones, right, and volunteer Lee Frierson, take a short break after leading a game of bingo with mental health patients at an Oakland, California, board-and-care home. (Photo by: Rob Waters)
By Rob Waters

It’s 1 p.m. on a balmy Oak­land afternoon as residents of Great Expectations Residen­tial Care, a home for people with mental illness, gather in an activity room for a game of bingo.

Lee Frierson, an unpaid vol­unteer, introduces himself as he and his team leader, Charlie Jones, unpack chips, soda, bat­teries and shampoo that they will hand out as prizes.

“I’m Lee with Reach Out,” Frierson says. “I’m a peer. I suffer from depression. It helps me to help you guys.”

“And I’m Charlie the angel,” Jones says. “We go to board-and-cares and psychiatric and wellness facilities to inspire hope and model recovery.”

A few rounds into the game, Frierson calls B-5, and a dark-haired man shouts, “Bingo!”

“Winner, winner, chicken dinner!” Frierson calls back, prompting chuckles.

What unfolds in this room is not exactly therapy, but it is something that mental health advocates and research suggest can be healing in its own right: people who have struggled with mental illness helping others who are experiencing similar struggles. Frierson and Jones are former mental health patients who now work with the Reach Out program, part of the nonprofit Alameda County Network of Mental Health Cli­ents, which provides what is called peer support.

The value of peer support is recognized by Medicaid, the health insurance program for people with low incomes, and it funds such services. That money is available for certified peer-support workers in states that have a formal certification process.

California does not, and that means it is “leaving money on the table,” said Keris Myrick, chief of peer services at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. South Da­kota is the only other state with no peer certification program.

But a bill pending in Sac­ramento, SB-10, would direct the State Department of Health Care Services to create a pro­cess for certifying peer sup­port workers and establish a set of core aptitudes and ethics guidelines for the job. The leg­islation passed the state Senate unanimously in May and will move to the Assembly Health Committee on Tuesday.

More than 6,000 peer sup­port specialists already work in wellness programs, hospitals and clinics across California, according to SB-10’s sponsor, Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose). They help mental health pa­tients navigate bureaucracies, find housing or locate services.

“They’re sharing their expe­riences: ‘Been there, done that, now I’m going to help another person,’” said Myrick, who has been diagnosed with schizoaf­fective disorder, was hospitalized several times and spent 10 years running a peer support program in Los Angeles.

Last year, the legislature unanimously passed a bill to certify peer support workers, but then-Gov. Jerry Brown ve­toed it, saying it was costly and unnecessary.

Legislative analysts esti­mate the state would spend hundreds of thousands of dol­lars to set up a certification pro­cess and millions more a year to implement it. Advocates say the new federal money would help offset those costs. And, they say, the legislation would cement the bona fides of peer mentoring as an occupation.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has not declared his position on the current bill, but he has said that addressing the state’s mental health crisis is a top priority for his administration. During his campaign for governor, he endorsed “expanded roles for nurse practitioners and peer providers.”

Dr. Thomas Insel, a former director of the National Insti­tute of Mental Health whom Newsom named in May as a key mental health adviser, told California Healthline he sup­ports the peer certification bill.

“For many people, hav­ing a connection to someone else who’s had this experi­ence proves vital,” Insel said. “There may be nothing more healing than giving people an opportunity to help others.”

Peer programs grew out of a movement in the 1970s op­posing coercive psychiatric treatment, led by people who’d been treated against their will and felt they would receive better care from those who personally identified with their experiences.

This article originally appeared in the Oakland Post
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